Food Matters: Burn, baby, burn
Cucumber, basil, and habanero peppers (100,000 to 350,000 SHU) combine to create the pale-green, blazing-good How’s Your Aspen Hot Sauce, a locally made condiment that launched in April. “So spicy it will make you sweat on a powder day”?! Aspen extreme, indeed. aspenhotsauce.com
“DUDE, ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?” At least 90 minutes had elapsed since we left the scene, yet my friend looked … sunburned. Flushed the color of a Colorado tomato! His eyes watered and his forehead was sweating. Profusely. Discernable beads of sweat streaked down his temples, despite the fact that we were sitting in an air-conditioned restaurant. He wouldn’t admit it, but I knew homeboy was struggling.
Recently we’d departed the Limelight Hotel, where executive chef Christopher Randall had dared us to try a slice of the famed Carolina Reaper, known since 2013 as the hottest chile pepper in the world. He’d acquired the peppers during a spring trip to South Carolina, where the Reaper was first cultivated by a farmer and hot sauce innovator hell-bent on breeding a chile that would earn a spot in the Guinness World Records as the spiciest in the world. The pepper he presented was deep orange-red — nearly fluorescent — and only the size of a marble. However, we were not to be fooled, Randall warned. According to anyone who knows anything about chile peppers: the smaller the specimen, the bigger the burn.
I didn’t need to eat the Carolina Reaper to understand its potency. I’d simply whisked a tiny sliver across my tongue — terrified to bite into it — and the tingling lasted a stressful 30 minutes. I was satisfied with such rare restraint. My bud: not so much. All this time later, he personified discomfort and regret.
Little wonder, since the Carolina Reaper measures an average of 1.57 million Scoville Heat Units (SHU) — the rating that indicates concentration of capsaicin, the compound that lends heat. This particular pepper is spawned from the notorious ghost pepper (“bhut jolokia” from India, Guinness record holder from 2007 to 2011), which ranks around 1 million SHU, some 400 times hotter than tabasco. (Jalapeños, by comparison, typically rank below 10,000 on the scale.) Its creator, “Smokin’” Ed Currie of the PuckerButt Pepper Co., compares its effect to swishing “a mouthful of lava.”
What, exactly, is the allure of peppers so piquant that they cause grown men to sweat while sitting still? Why would someone undergo such suffering voluntarily?
The answer, according to sociocultural psychologist Paul Rozin, is a phenomenon he calls “benign masochism.” As Rozin wrote in a 1980 paper on the subject, eating spicy foods is a thrill-seeking activity on par with rollercoaster rides and scorching bath soaks. The pleasure, he wrote, results from the sweet relief that follows what the brain originally perceives as a threat (spice).
Even watching someone eat an insanely spicy chile can offer similar joy — perhaps that’s why a video of a punk-ass kid swallowing a ghost pepper and then screaming in misery collected 1.5 million hits just days after its release in 2015.
Research indicates that benign masochism is hot, hot, hot across America: By 2019, hot sauces are expected to expand 15 times faster than other sauces on the market. Since Aspen is home base for a bunch of adventuresome maniacs, it figures that folks here seek spice. In April, longtime local Jaffe Gordon-Rissman unveiled How’s Your Aspen Hot Sauce, a cucumber-basil-habañero concoction. Aspenites are eating it up. (See sidebar, opposite page.)
While Randall has no intention of dosing Limelight dishes with Carolina Reaper (they’re “just for fun,” he says, without irony), he does garnish his pimento cheese appetizer with pickled Fresnos and uses chiles in other dishes. (For a recent beer dinner, he did successfully infuse a dish of General Tso’s broccoli with a miniscule amount of tropical-tinged Reaper, which he propagates at home.)
Bamboo Bear serves Thai birds eye chile (100,000 to 225,000 SHU) upon request; Bangkok Happy Bowl will make a dish similarly extra-zesty when asked. Mi Chola makes its salsas and hot sauces for all palates. And, of course, spicy margaritas are a year-round staple at watering holes across town.
“People in Aspen are definitely gravitating toward spicy food,” says chef Vinnie Bagford, proprietor of the 13-month-old Bamboo Bear restaurant. “I see a lot of people requesting the Thai bird’s eye chili — it is very unique. The food is not the same if I use jalapeño or another pepper versus the bird’s eye chile — it gives you the authentic flavor of Southeast Asia. And on takeout orders people are always asking for a side of sambal or Sriracha.”
Over at bb’s, chef Jeff Casagrande brings the heat via a variety of chile peppers: chicken lettuce wraps see cubed meat coated in a gochujang, or fermented Korean chile paste, served with a side of kimchi. He dusts sweet potato fries with a heady combo of Hungarian and sweet smoked paprika, Tajín chile-lime seasoning, chile powder, and cumin to dip in chipotle ketchup; Russian dressing offers soothing solace. And Casagrande’s new crispy chicken sandwich is slathered with aioli made mildly mouth-tingling thanks to aji amarillo, a yellow Peruvian pepper ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 SHU (take that, White House Tavern!).
“It’s amazing how different cultures use spice: fresh, roasted, pickled, ground, fermented, and pastes or purées,” Casagrande says. “I do see more people trying to expand to trying more spicy foods, and I think they should.”
Spice tolerance may be a matter of provenance and exposure. As a Massachusetts native who once called soda “spicy,” I didn’t grow up enjoying much heat. One time I watched my dad accidentally consume one of those shriveled blackish-red peppers in General Tso’s chicken and I’m certain that was the first and only time I’ve seen him cry. Mild salsa was about as much as I could stand when I moved to Colorado in 2012; now I prefer medium and will tolerate hot on occasion. I’ve been a chili judge more than once at the Snowmass competition. It’s an ongoing evolution.
“A little goes a long way,” continues Bagford, who sources Thai chiles at Asian markets in Denver. “Other times, two or three in a salad are needed. (Often) I put them in pho and then pull them out so the broth does not get too hot when I am eating my own bowl.”
Chef Will Nolan ticks off a grocery list of chile peppers that he uses in dishes at the Viceroy Snowmass: chile de árbol, serrano, poblano, jalapeño, even raw cayenne, which “are great fresh and sliced thin, pickled, smoked, or dried and ground,” he says. “I also use these bad ass Italian peppers: pepperoncini piccanti calabresi … (and) Shishito from Erin’s Acres — the cool thing about these is that 1 in every 10 are hot.”
Shishitos (20-500 SHU) are ubiquitous in Aspen, and not only at sushi restaurants, where the East Asian peppers are a staple starter. Chef Casagrande told me that bb’s shishito peppers with soy caramel, garlic chips and sesame seed is one dish he can’t take off the menu.
As for my buddy, who was exposed to spicy foods as a child born in South Korea, when I ask him to reflect on that fateful afternoon at the Limelight: “I ate another piece later that afternoon,” he mentions casually. Was it any easier? “Nope,” he said. “Still f—ing hot.”
Benign masochists may enjoy a newer, bigger challenge soon. In May of this year, a new contender applied for Guinness World Record consideration: a pepper by the name of Dragon’s Breath, reportedly a fantastically fiery 2.4 million SHU. Got milk?
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